Came drifting in …

Writing this column in the summer can be a precarious undertaking. Whereas the football season provides a rigorously scheduled calendar of events, the summer is a little more haphazard in terms of its timeline. This time last year I spent a balmy Wednesday lunch break drafting a piece on Arsenal’s involvement in Euro 2012. Within six hours of putting the finishing touches to it, a certain Dutch striker released a pithy statement and some swift redrafting ensued. It is Wednesday evening as I cautiously craft this piece, so I expect by the time it goes to print, we’ll have signed the cast of Escape to Victory.

However, there have been some movements in the last week that suggest that the machinery is creaking into gear. For a start, we have signed young striker Yaya Sanogo. (One wonders what the signing means for Joel Campbell. Is this town big enough for two young buck strikers?). Predictably the news was met with some laconic testaments of underwhelm. I realise logic struggles to make friends in football circles, but it’s a puzzling stance to adopt.

I know it doesn’t really work like this, but in the strictest sense, it’s illogical to be excited or underwhelmed by any signing until they’ve kicked a ball for you. A scarcely known 20 year old striker hasn’t got people’s pulses racing, but that’s all Robin van Persie was when we bought him. There again so was Fabian Caballero. If you’re looking at past performance being an indicator of future success, then surely Sanogo is as likely to be one as the other? So to take a position on him now seems a little absurd.

In fact, Arsene Wenger’s three biggest money acquisitions have been Sylvain Wiltord, Jose Reyes and Andrey Arshavin, all of whom left with question marks over them. You could argue that it’s really not worth getting excited when Arsenal break their transfer record if history is anything to go by. For all of the discontent over Arsenal’s ‘deadwood’, it’s worth remembering that we lost Wiltord on a free transfer having effectively placed him on gardening leave for the final year of his contract. In our current roster of dispensables, no wood has been blighted with greater rigor mortis than Andrey Arshavin.

In the final year of his contract, the Russian refused to even leave on loan and allow us to apportion a slice of his sizeable wages to another club. All this whilst his most notable contribution to the squad was to significantly swell its calorie count. Even Marouane Chamakh spent five months on loan at Faces nightclub. Arshavin has of course now returned to Zenit St. Petersburg and judging by this article, it hardly sounds like a mutually joyous reunion.

One Russian fan refers to him as a “bench polishing crisp eater.” Yet still the myth persists that he was somehow misused at Arsenal. I find it amazing that so many feel that we should have changed the entire shape of the team so that we could indulge his laziness in the least responsible role on the pitch, behind the striker. In reality, Arshavin was always a little too wasteful to build a team around as his awful pass percentage rates would attest. There’s a mitigating argument that this was largely due to his willingness to play probing passes in the final third, the sort that slice teams open and are therefore higher risk but with potentially higher reward.

There is some redemption in that point, yes. Yet Pires and Bergkamp were hardly conservative passers of the ball from a similar position and they were able to make the right decision with the pass with much greater regularity. The discourse says that Arshavin was never a winger but Arsenal have never really played orthodox wingers under Arsene Wenger. Pires, Ljungberg, Overmars and Walcott have never struggled to get involved centrally. Under George Graham, Paul Merson was hardly marooned on the touchline either. Wenger doesn’t play his attackers on the wing; it’s much more accurate to say he plays them from the wing.

According to whoscored.com Santi Cazorla registered 4 goals and 7 assists from a left midfield position last season. I don’t think his boots were particularly chalky when he amassed that lot. The difference is that the aforementioned players showed the work rate to cover the flanks when Arsenal lost possession. One could argue that Arshavin’s best form in an Arsenal shirt arose from the platform of a much more conservative midfield setup that was able to cover for his forward work. His debut for Arsenal was a 0-0 draw against Sunderland, our fourth 0-0 draw in succession.

With Cesc Fabregas injured; more functional midfielders such as Denilson, Song and Diaby were a common feature in Arsenal’s midfield. Once Nasri, van Persie and Fabregas were fit in tandem, Arshavin’s star faded and his laziness was much more exposed. Desire is a quality in a top level footballer and if you lack desire, you lack quality I’m afraid. Arshavin was not some kind of tactical prisoner. Even if he were, truly great players adapt. That said, I think it might have been different for Andrey had he left his St. Petersburg womb at a younger age.

Two players that have been living the lacuna life over the past couple of seasons will leave the club this week in the shape of Johan Djourou and Nicklas Bendtner. The last crumbs of the early stadium youth project are being swept from the deck. So much so that Abou Diaby is currently the only member of the first team squad to have played for Arsenal at Highbury. There were times when I really thought Bendtner and Djourou would become valuable members of the first team.

Had Bendtner been perhaps three years younger and had his emergence coincide with the impoverished striking options we’ve had for the last two seasons, it might have been a different story. Gingers 4 Limpar made some very salient points on twitter with regards to Bendtner this week, arguing that he fell into the category of player that is very much world class on the training pitch, but not so much in the intense cauldron of top level football.

Given time and space, he had fleet of foot to match many a striker, as his goals against Newcastle and Ipswich in the 2010-11 Carling Cup suggest. G4L offered that fact as explanation for Wenger’s seemingly baffling decision to play him on the right wing, where he could find time and space easier to come by. Djourou too was a defender I liked for a time, but as many a discarded Arsenal youngster has shown, if you’re not playing regularly by the age of 22 or 23 you tend to stagnate. A salutary note for Yaya Sanogo. If history is anything to go by, of course. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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